Having traded for years on his association with street artist Banksy, a gallery owner landed tens of thousands of pounds in public money for an arts festival promoting his business – even as he was being declared bankrupt by the tax man. STEVEN DOWNES reports
Croydon Council and the town centre’s Business Improvement District used tens of thousands of pounds of public money to pay for an arts festival organised by a local businessman who was in the process of being made bankrupt.
And the recipient of that Town Hall largesse, the now-former bankrupt Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, says he is planning “big things over the next few months”, after having staged the launch of his latest venture… in the offices of the council-owned loss-making house-builder, Brick by Brick.
Today, a delegation from Croydon has headed to City Hall to submit the council’s bid for yet more public money for their pet projects, as they seek to become London’s “Borough of Culture” in 2023. A £1million grant from the Mayor of London is the prize if they are successful.
The Croydon delegation included Oliver “Ollie” Lewis, the New Addington councillor and some time golf caddie for council leader Tony Newman, and Paula Murray, the council’s “creative director”.
Between them, Lewis and Murray have had varying responsibilities for arts and culture around the borough over the past four years.
These include the unfinished and incomplete refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, which re-opened more than a year late and £11million over-budget, while they also managed to hand over more than £50,000 in public cash for a performance art festival in 2018 which included one show that “contains a series of modified butt plugs”.
That performance was further described as, “Always sculptural and gracefully schizophrenic… The actions and objects are designed to enrapture rather than repel, in an effort to demystify the anus”.
Now, an investigation by Inside Croydon has discovered that 18 months ago, more than £80,000 of public money was also lavished by the council and its mates on an arts festival in the town centre organised by Zuchowski-Morrison, even as the insolvency court was ruling him ineligible to hold directorships or run a business.
Zuchowski-Morrison was the owner of the Rise Gallery on St George’s Walk.
He is now notorious in art dealing circles for being the subject of a serious alert from agents representing the artist Banksy, warning dealers not to do business with him because of a string of complaints about unfulfilled orders and unreturned works of art.
Zuchowski-Morrison was the subject of bankruptcy proceedings in March 2018 brought by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and was formally declared bankrupt on July 17, 2018.
But through a Freedom of Information request, Inside Croydon has obtained internal correspondence, budgets and copies of draft contracts regarding the Rise Festival, including an email dated July 6, 2018, from Matthew Sims, the chief executive of Croydon BID, to Paula Murray at the council.
In that July 6 email sent from his Croydon BID office in Saffron House, Sims refers to “Kev”. This is understood to mean Zuchowski-Morrison.
Three years earlier, and barely 12 months after opening his gallery in the town centre, Zuchowski-Morrison was presented with the award as “Croydon’s Best New Business” at the Croydon Business Excellence Awards.
Zuchowski-Morrison had been rapidly propelled to the role of figurehead in the council’s efforts to artwash the town centre’s already faltering redevelopment efforts. “Since opening on St George’s Walk last year, Mr Zuchowski-Morrison’s Rise Gallery has impressed critics and Croydon residents alike with retrospectives of Damian Hirst and Banksy, as well as showcases of emerging artists,” the gullible local rag gushed.
“He has put Croydon on the arts map and turned St George’s Walk into a vibrant creative hub that is now known as Croydon’s Arts Quarter,” said the veteran councillor Toni Letts, doubtless after a careful briefing.
And Zuchowski-Morrison was reported as saying, with some degree of bravado, “My accountant actually told me not to do it, but I ignored him because I think you have to do what you believe in.” Oh, how we laughed!
It is not known whether Zuchowski-Morrison was taking the advice of his accountant again by 2018, though with his business clearly struggling, getting his hands on £80,000 of public cash to run a festival carrying the name of his gallery was clearly going to help promote his business.
In his July 6 email, Sims wrote: “I have attached the first draft of the sponsorship agreement for the RISE Urban Arts Festival.
“It has been agreed that the sponsorship fund from Croydon BID and Croydon Council be ring-fenced within the BID accounts. Therefore Croydon BID will raise an invoice for £45,000 to Croydon Council for the sponsorship.
“The sponsorship agreement details a request for:
“A full and detailed budget to be sent by a specific date;
“All invoices issued by RISE Gallery to Croydon BID in reference to the event be issued with invoices/payments made by RISE Gallery regarding an aspect of the festival;
“All invoices from suppliers be directed to Croydon BID in our name so that they can pass through our accounts.
“Regular reviews of the budget are required.
“I have spoken with Kev and explained the sponsorship agreement and how we intend to move forward. He is in agreement with approach [sic].
“Please can you review the sponsorship agreement attached and in the first instance make any suggestions as to its improvement or simply agree it. You can then create your own agreement with RISE Gallery for your fund but making clear that the funds are to be transferred and managed by Croydon BID.
“I’m happy to chat through next week but keen to have this signed off.”
And indeed, council director Murray and Sims did sign off on the deal, and Zuchowski-Morrison got to stage his gallery-promoting festival.
The documents released under FoI show that £30,000 in sponsorship came from Croydon Council, £15,000 from Croydon BID, and there was also £15,000-worth of Arts Council grant funding. The festival also benefited from £15,000 from something called “The Hub”, and £4,000 from the Whitgift Centre.
The total budgeted income came to £81,170.
Budgeted expenditure on artists, venue hire, materials and the staging of events was listed as nearly £40,000 in cash and kind.
“General costs”, such as van and plant hire, was budgeted at £20,000.
The rest of the money would be spent on a Festival Director (£7,500) and Administrator (£5,250), one or two other “managers”, £1,000 for “volunteer expenses”, and more than £12,000 on “marketing”.
The documents released under FoI by the council run to two dozen pages. The words “bankrupt” or “bankruptcy” never occur in the papers.
Inside Croydon asked Sims what sort of due diligence had been conducted either by his organisation, Croydon BID, or Croydon Council before they handed over tens of thousands of pounds to someone who was going through bankruptcy proceedings.
This was Sims’ arse-covering response: “To be clear: Croydon BID’s contribution to the Rise Festival as sponsor was £15,000. At the time of agreeing to sponsor the Rise Festival, Croydon BID was unaware that Kevin Zuckowski-Morrison was entering bankruptcy proceedings.
“Croydon BID completed a thorough, internal formal investigation of its activities concerning the Rise Festival as requested by its board of directors. The conclusion of the investigation was that all processes and procedures had been met fully.”
So it appears that the answer to the simple question, “Did you or the council conduct due diligence before handing over piles of public cash?” is a straightforward, “No”.
A year before the council-funded Rise Festival, Zuchowski-Morrison had been flag-waving for the council’s previous Borough of Culture bid. “Rise Gallery is awsome [sic],” ran the sub-titles on a somewhat lame promotion video.
“Croydon is amazeballs,” he never quite says.
“Culture at its peak,” the then soon-to-be-bankrupt art dealer claimed. He was clearly more easily convinced than were the judges: Croydon didn’t even make it into the top eight last time around.
Of course, not all the business travails and troubles experienced by Zuchowski-Morrison have been entirely his own fault. Or his under-worked accountant.
Rise Gallery would have had to close as the owners of St George’s Walk began their redevelopment of their property. The bankruptcy undoubtedly did not help. A promise, from the council, that Zuchowski-Morrison might be able to transfer to a new gallery space in what was the car park under the Fairfield Halls, failed to be honoured.
Indeed, that art gallery has never been built, and the Halls’ 200-space car park is yet to re-open.
After Murray and the council authorised spending £41million on refurbishing the arts centre, there is now no dedicated, purpose-built gallery space at the Fairfield Halls.
Having discharged his bankruptcy, Zuchowski-Morrison, as he is entitled to, is attempting to re-establish a business. It appears that he may again benefit from some generous largesse from his old mates at Croydon Council, perhaps as they bid for that £1million chunk of Borough of Culture funding.
In November, he launched KzMStudios at a cosy little white-wine-and-canapes style reception staged in the offices of Brick by Brick on George Street.
While details of how KzMStudios might operate have yet to be released, it seems likely to follow the same schtick as his previous venture, with him brokering street art, some of it of dubious merit – such as the various pieces, some costing more than £10,000 – he managed to procure with council money when Surrey Street underwent its underwhelming makeover.
Zuchowski-Morrison is already associating himself with some graffiti-style signage on a craft ale bar in Surrey Street where pints are a too-cool-for-Shoreditch eight quid a time. And there’s also been suggestions that he has been working on some council buildings, organising artists to paint murals.
Given Zuchowski-Morrison’s track record in business, especially among fellow art dealers and collectors, he might seem an unsuitable partner, even by Croydon Council’s standards, and perhaps an unworthy recipient of council funding.
Yet if, in Croydon’s efforts to art-wash its other failures around the town centre they do end up engaging Zuchowski-Morrison as part of their Borough of Culture efforts, of one thing we can all be certain: it won’t be including any kind of retrospective of Banksy’s works any time soon.
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Paula was very flippant about having discussed with her pal Kevin a commercial opportunity that was being presented to her by a private company, and which was probably in commercial competition with Kevin.
That was back in early 2017. The opportunity would have had zero cost to the council but would have had a positive commercial benefit to many businesses in croydon. Kevin didn’t seem too impressed with the venture, as Paula intimated.
Is Tony Newman just a serial bad judge of character?
…and London Borough of Culture 2023 goes to… Brent.
Apparently, those in the know say Croydon had it in the bag but the presentation was muddled – is there anything Tony Newman can get right for this borough or do we just have to put up with him because of the magnetic power of his personality?
Is there a purpose for the Council supporting “Art” entrepreneurs ? Other than giving the appearance of a cultured group of people who have a pre-occupation with good design has any assessment been made of the returns of such “investment” ? It clearly hasn’t failed to turn around the fortunes of Central Croydon which is still stuck in a terminal malaise of developmental blight and mires the local politicians in controversy. It appears the selling point of Croydon’s bid for the London Borough of Culture should be a bleak dystopia which appears to be the only return for all there misplaced efforts.
When Paula Murray took up her highly paid role (and let’s face a fairly pointless, if not albeit extravagant role) she had to immediately find the high-brow culture that she snobbishly filtered as being culture, and Kevin was pretty much the only thing on offer to her in the borough (no Fairfields) thus the start of this relationship.
Why not employ a head of culture from within the borough rather than import from high-brow cultural Brighton? No need to answer.
It may be just me, but when did it become acceptable for a local Council to spend taxpayers money on anything they feel like but are not responsible for the resulting debacle when these ‘investments’ are clearly both wrong and unauthorised and self-evidently a total waste of OUR MONEY? I honestly believe that every penny should be deducted from the councillors over generous wage packets!